The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 6

The morning after, the years ahead

The morning after, the years ahead

Jonathan Hayward/CP

The morning after, the years ahead
Jonathan Hayward/CP

Introduction: Politics turned over
How Harper got what he’s always wanted, Layton took centre stage, and Ignatieff and Duceppe were done in

Chapter 1: The first mistake
The seeds of Michael Ignatieff’s troubles were planted last fall, and by the Liberals themselves

Chapter 2: Not feeling the love
Harper was tightly controlled, Ignatieff loose and freewheeling. Layton? Just a guy most Canadians would rather have a beer with

Chapter 3: The velocity of indignation
The PM had problems: the auditor general kerfuffle, Bruce Carson, the folks kicked out of rallies. The Liberals railed, but the NDP stepped up.

Chapter 4: Turning up the heat
The leaders clashed predictably in the TV debates, but the election would soon turn unexpectedly on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Chapter 5: The orange wave rises
Years of quiet preparation in Quebec begin paying off for the NDP—Layton’s rivals wake up to a new reality

Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead
What do Harper and Layton have in common? An understanding of what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age­—patience and determination.

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Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead

In the end, Stephen Harper’s party won 167 seats and 39.62 per cent of the popular vote. The players in the Conservative war room betting pool guessed low. But then conservatism is sometimes associated, even by conservatives themselves, with pessimism: it holds that human nature is not perfectible on this Earth, and that it rarely does any good to sit around hoping for the best. Harper marked his victory by receiving congratulatory calls from Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The laconic accounts of these calls from Harper’s spokesman mentioned that the current shooting wars in Afghanistan and Libya, where Canada still has soldiers risking their lives, were among the subjects of conversation. Silver linings always come tucked into clouds.

At its worst, Harper’s pessimism about human nature hurts the country and discourages his own government’s political staff. They believe they are doing good work for Canadians. They would like to say so. The layers of threat and secrecy Harper has relied upon feel silly to them. Harper has pursued free trade with Europe without talking about the merits of trade with Europe. He wants to redefine Canada’s border relationship with the United States a lot more than he wants to explain what that would entail.

The budget he will now use his majority to pass listed, but did not describe, more than $2 billion in cuts to government spending. On many days during this campaign, a bored reporter could amuse himself by seeking an explanation for those very considerable cuts from incumbent Conservative cabinet ministers or senior staffers. Not a peep. Now we will all find out. The two drafts of Sheila Fraser’s G8 audit that leaked during the campaign were not the final draft. Now we will get to see the final draft. What the French call “l’usure du pouvoir”—the wear of power—will continue.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t wear down Stephen Harper. He has been Prime Minister for five years and he just won his biggest victory. By the time Brian Mulroney had been prime minister for this long, he had already won the last election his party would ever win. Three Liberal leaders have broken their careers on the assumption that Harper would soon wear out his welcome. Now Jack Layton has taken their place. A proper regard for the lessons of history should discourage the New Democrat from triumphalism.

So it was fitting that the mood was far from celebratory at Layton’s news conference in Toronto, on the afternoon after the election. Many of the questions centred on the inexperience of his new crop of MPs, particularly the cluster of university students who won seats in Montreal. Layton tried to direct attention toward the more experienced individuals among his many rookie caucus members.

“It’s a diverse group,” he said. “We have a former member of Parliament. We have a former cabinet minister. We have a former deputy grand chief of the Cree of the James Bay Nation. We have the first Innu lawyer from the community in the north of Quebec. We have an expert in international law. And, yes, we have some young people. But you know, young people got involved in this election in an unprecedented way. I think it was very exciting. I think we should see that as something to celebrate, not something to criticize.”

Asked how he hoped to consolidate his election breakthrough in the face of a Conservative majority that’s likely to govern as the Prime Minister sees fit, Layton suggested he would somehow marshal progressive forces outside Parliament. “It’s a question of working with people all across the country,” he said, “and applying as much pressure as we possibly can to the Harper Conservatives.” He added that Harper has an “obligation and an opportunity” to work with him and others outside the Tory ranks.

Later, an NDP campaign strategist acknowledged that the learning curve for rookies will be steep. “Of course some of these people will need to learn to deal with the national media, with the various agendas that are at play sometimes. There will be mistakes. We’ll learn from them and move on,” the strategist said.

Already the NDP is making quick decisions about the challenges it can tackle and the ones it must ignore. The strategist said Layton will be happy to let others interpret the significance of his breakthrough for Quebec provincial politics. “That’s not our battlefield. It’s up to Mr. Charest, Mme. Marois and Mr. Deltell”—Jean Charest, Pauline Marois and Gérard Deltell, the leaders of the main provincial parties in Quebec—“to fight it out.”

Indeed. This should be the biggest lesson everyone draws from Duceppe’s failed attempt to save his bacon by dragging Ottawa into Quebec’s provincial fights. Quebecers have decided, this year at least, that they don’t like politicians who do that. The Parliament of Canada has enough work of its own.

The Bloc will probably not fold up shop completely; it may well revive some day. Quebecers have demonstrated in election after election that they are prone to mood swings, and they may swing back to the flag-waving plague-on-all-your-houses stance the Bloc trademarked. If that happens, it will not be an unmanageable problem. Canada managed it for 21 years.

The Liberals are in big trouble. Their best thinking got them here: every choice the party has made since 2002 drew a wide consensus within a party that thought it was good at winning. In June 2002, the overwhelming majority of the party thought it was an excellent idea to side with an heir apparent, Paul Martin, against Jean Chrétien.

In 2006—this is the part Liberals are likeliest to forget—the party brass took care to organize a very long leadership race with a low threshold for participating, so a lot of candidates could take their time debating ideas. The product of that eminently laudable process was Stéphane Dion. It is revisionism to say Liberals knew immediately they had made a mistake. Most of them left the Montreal convention centre giddy. Most who disagreed thought the party should have preferred Michael Ignatieff.

Liberals should not hurry to crown their next saviour. In fact, any Liberal who pops up next week with a one-election comeback plan should be keelhauled. We know now what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age: patience, humility and determination. Harper and Layton became leaders of their respective parties, the dying Canadian Alliance and the negligible NDP, 10 months apart in 2002 and 2003. They then proceeded to do some losing. They were denied the false comfort of predecessors’ triumph. Michael Ignatieff hired dedicated young staffers and spent a year boning up. It did not get him much better results than Jack Layton won in 2004, after he had spent the same amount of time doing the same thing. Layton kept going. Ignatieff’s successor will start again from zero. Liberals should look for someone who will not pretend to be doing anything else.

Even then the party may not survive. The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada fought a competitive and well-financed leadership campaign in 2003—three years after the last election it ever contested. That’s life.

This Parliament’s other newcomer reinforces the lesson that dedication pays. Elizabeth May has not had an easy time of things, jilted by voters in Ontario and Nova Scotia in earlier runs, and by the TV networks during this year’s leaders’ debates. Finally the Green party leader camped out in Saanich-Gulf Islands until the voters there realized she would simply stay if they did not send her to Ottawa. Now she has a chance to remind Canadians that her message is bigger than herself, if it is. If any of this Parliament’s accidental MPs start to wonder whether this life is worth it, they should talk to May, who worked harder to get her seat than just about anyone. That alone makes her a welcome addition.

Finally, this election left homework on the plates of the capital’s political reporters, if we care to do it. Too many of us spent an ungodly amount of time complaining about Harper’s cap on the number of questions he would take—and then conspiring, in an absurd little morning huddle, to waste limited opportunity by asking Harper question after question about polls, process, and hypotheses. The man’s career is becoming a significant chunk of modern Canadian history. A greater effort to understand why he wins would not be a sign of journalistic weakness.

But enough shoptalk. Stephen Harper asked for a strong, stable, national majority Conservative government and that is what he has received. What happens next is up to him. It would be foolish to believe he is done surprising us.

With Colby Cosh, Josh Dehaas, Stephanie Findlay, Tom Henheffer, Jason Kirby, Kate Lunau, Martin Patriquin and Chris Sorensen